Nestled in the mountainous woods an hour east of Lexington, KY, lies the cozy town of Campton. It’s a veritable one-road village, the route 11 Mountain Parkway snaking its way through the terrain, sheer rock faces rising up on either side of the street.
Not many people recognize Campton by name, but whether you’re at the bouldering wall at the Rec or leading a pitch on El Capitan in Yosemite, if you talk to any rock climber, they know the area: This is the Red River Gorge.
With a wide variety of towering rock walls featuring plenty of crags and grips, the Red River Gorge (or the Red as it’s known in the climbing community) is one of the premier locations in the world for sport climbing. As opposed to traditional (or trad) climbing, sport climbers ascend walls that already have bolts permanently secured to the wall, allowing the lead climber to clip in using quickdraws on their way up.
Whether you’re an experienced lead climber looking for a perilous challenge, or a beginner who thinks a “V8” is a type of vegetable juice, the Red is a fantastic spot to practice your skills on a real rock wall. You can either bring down your personal gear and find a route on your own, or you can hire a guide from a local company, such as Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure.
Don’t think that climbers have a monopoly on the Red, however. The area is a perfect fall getaway for any adventurer, a placid mountain oasis hidden in the middle of the Bluegrass State. The calming foliage and rustic wooden cabins will hypnotize you as you drive along the quaint Mountain Parkway. And as we embark deeper into October, the crisp chill creeping into the air provides a fantastic ambiance for an evening under the stars (and this far from a major city, you’ll see plenty of them!).
For lodging, check out Land of the Arches Campground, a welcoming site popular among climbers. Just show up with your tent and sleeping bags and five dollars per person per night, and feel free to set up camp wherever. The owner, Dave, will be around to answer any questions you may have, or to simply strike up a friendly conversation about whatever’s been running through his mind all day (in our case, his entrepreneurial idea for a “hillbilly hot tub”). As the sun sets behind the hills, campfires will begin to crackle around the campground, so walk around and meet some of the climbers, many of whom have made the pilgrimage from far away.
If you have time for a quick hike, make sure to mosey on over to Natural Bridge State Park for a moderate climb up to Natural Bridge. The eponymous structure is a flat rock arch that spans across the gorge, allowing for spectacular photos from above and below.
Of course, no trip to the Red is complete without a meal at Miguel’s. The tiny pizza hut is the epicenter of activity in the area, a bustling hub always overflowing with climbers, some of whom actually set up camp in the fields in the back. With its variety of eccentric toppings (hummus or pesto, anyone?), its unrivaled popularity and its neverending supply of Ale-8 ginger ale, Miguel’s has become a world-famous institution. Climbers in the Alps would recognize the mustachioed logo if they saw the sticker on your water bottle.
Only a three-hour drive from Oxford, the Red River Gorge is an ideal fall break destination for those looking for a scenic autumn getaway. All you need is a tent, some friends and climbing gear, if you’re so inclined.